Alison O'Connor: Leo Varadkar a long way from electoral poster boy of old

Alison O'Connor: Leo Varadkar a long way from electoral poster boy of old

Remember that time when it was difficult to imagine anyone other than Leo Varadkar leading Fine Gael? Now it’s difficult to see him in that leadership position six months from now.

Even if that scenario does not play out, the question has to be asked if he is the best placed person to lead his party in this new landscape.

It’s part of his image problem that it is all too easy to imagine him deciding not to stick around if the going gets too tough. Around three years ago, as he geared up to become the new Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar was being spoken about as a “gifted communicator”, so well able was he to get his message across.

But now with his first general election under his belt we can describe his ability to connect with the voters as unimpressive, and his ability to convince those same people that he actually cares about the issues they care about, ranking somewhere around dismal.

It was always a tough ask for a government party, seeking a third term, to perform well in a general election. But this is exactly what his party colleagues factored in when they elected him, rather than Simon Coveney, as party leader in June 2017.

Behind the scenes they had their own reservations, but after years with a leader seen to perform poorly in media outings, it was judged that Leo’s sparkle and star factor would be the best asset in terms of keeping those Fine Gael seats when the time came.

It was the days of his fellow leadership contender Simon Coveney being described as the “workhorse”, with Leo being dubbed the more flattering “show pony”. There must be a number in the party today who feel they could take a case to take under some sort of the trade descriptions act.

There is a way to go yet in working out the eventual make up of the next Dáil, but in terms of delivering what was expected of him Leo Varadkar has been a big disappointment to his party.

He spoke upon being appointed leader as someone who was still “evolving” as a politician and a person.

Indeed, he changed his position on abortion, for instance, introducing the successful 2018 referendum. From a poor start when discussing gender issues he established the recent Citizen’s Assembly which has just begun its work looking at gender inequality in Irish society.

So people have been looking at the cut of his jib for the past two and a half years. In that time he has shown a distinct inability to pivot when necessary, and speak to the voters in a manner in which they feel he understands what is bothering them.

This election result showed how much people were looking for change, perhaps voters themselves not yet realising how much until the campaign began.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had an excellent campaign. Her ability to connect with people on a political and emotional level was evident from footage and reports, and how she presented herself in television debates. All the talk early on concerning her exclusion from TV debates was a major boon and elicited anger from people who would not normally pay much attention to such things.

She had a number of good lines throughout not least one in advance of one of those debates when she said:

It’s a strange approach to say they will expose me, given that I am someone who wants to make the population happy and put a roof over their heads.

This in contrast to the Varadkar approach. There was the surprise, mid-campaign acknowledgement that he had a poor ability to show empathy. This is indeed a drawback for a politician at any level, let alone one who has been running the country and was seeking a third term in power for his party.

It was added to by the failure/inability to pick up the signals being sent by the electorate. Previously when he spoke of people who “got up early in the morning” the conversation centred around tax cuts — in this election they could be seen as commuters who crawled out of bed at 6am each morning, had their kids in the crèche not that long after and after a hard slog at work made the long and slow journey home to collect the kids and get them fed and to bed.

In between times they worry about rising rent and the genuine fear that anyone in the extended family might need to interact with the health services.

This is undoubtedly an exceptionally bright man who told us that while he wasn’t able to express it, he did care and wanted to make this a better Ireland. But one of the outstanding memories of the campaign was the manner in which he immediately politicised the tragedy of the homeless man on the canal so horribly injured when his tent was lifted with him inside.

It remains incomprehensible that on a day when everyone was appalled on a human level at what had gone on, party politics was Leo’s go-to position. Even when asked in the weeks afterwards about the tragedy and the man’s condition now, he was unconvincing in his answers in terms of actually appearing concerned.

He did manage to get home the message that Fine Gael was responsible for our economic progress, but appeared unable to get to grips with the message from the voters that their concerns were far broader than that.

Even if they were not directly affected by the twin crises of health and housing people were concerned about living in a country where there was such a sense of hopelessness surrounding both.

For too long Fine Gael appeared to show an impatience with the electorate that they were simply not appreciating their stellar efforts in health and housing. The voters gave their opinion on this classic FG arrogance in spades at the ballot boxes on Saturday.

That’s not to say Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin didn’t have his own significant problems. He also faces an uncertain future after a failure to find favour with the voters in anything like the numbers he needed. That is an entirely separate analysis.

But Leo Varadkar has travelled a long distance from the electoral poster boy that we once heard would take Fine Gael to great heights.

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